Somehow I missed the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation last month. But Honest Trailers was on the job.
I remain on the Kirk side of the debate.
Somehow I missed the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation last month. But Honest Trailers was on the job.
I remain on the Kirk side of the debate.
In a world where there was no Star Trek, what becomes of the post-Trek cultural artifacts that range from Galaxy Quest to The Big Bang Theory to catch phrases to television tropes to William Shatner doing Priceline.com commercials? He’s not getting that gig because of T. J. Hooker or that one episode of The Twilight Zone.
What does the world look like without Star Trek’s influence?
I know, Star Trek feels dated.
The pilot for the original series was done and rejected before I was even born. The series itself had run its three seasons and was cancelled before I even old enough to know it was a thing.
But then, somehow, it stayed alive. It ran, and remained popular, in syndication for years and years. I and millions of others watch those re-runs and the follow-on animated series. Before Star Wars could have an expanded universe there was already a pile of Star Trek novels available. There were models and costumes and board games and books just about the phenomena that was Star Trek. There was even a store over at the San Antonio shopping center at one point called Starbase One or some such. It sold other science fiction stuff. You could find a battery powered Robby the Robot or a model of an Eagle from Space 1999 or a few Lost in Space related items, but most of the place was just stacked up with Star Trek related items.
There was a time when having a store dedicated to Star Trek seemed like a sound business decision. And I used to just nerd out in there when I wasn’t over at the Hobby Shop.
I’ve even written about the first computer video game I ever played, which was, of course, Star Trek.
Star Trek was a big freakin’ deal. And it was cemented into my consciousness before Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or Alien or any number of other science fiction franchises.
It wasn’t high art. The original series could be groan inducingly bad at times. The third season especially seemed to have trouble finding decent scripts. And it hasn’t aged very well. It feels awkward and self-conscious today.
But at the time it filled a need. It was water on a desert. It was optimistic and hopeful and showed us a future that looked pretty damn cool. I wanted to be on the Enterprise, to be a part of that crew.
And the cornerstone of that crew was the half human, half Vulcan Mr. Spock. I do not think Star Trek works without him and his exotic look and pointy ears and oddly compelling logical view of the universe. Yes, sometimes emotion would win out, but only when it was logical for it to do so. No character so well defined the series (or was so completely abused in the subsequent flood of novels) than Mr. Spock.
I remember once, back in the early 90s, explaining to a co-worker about Star Trek. She grew up overseas and emigrated to the United States as a graduate student and then stayed on, marrying a fellow immigrant and settling down in Silicon Valley. She was (and remains) very smart and was interested in various cultural things. One day we were giving the “Live Long and Prosper” sign in the lab and she wanted to know about it.
So I gave her a little background on Star Trek and then tried to help her get her hand to do the sign, which she couldn’t quite manage. Then her husband showed up to pick her up on the way home from his job, and when he walked into the room I turned to him and gave him the sign… and he put his hand up and returned it, causing his wife to boggle in disbelief. She practically shouted the question, “How do you know that?” It was a beautiful moment.
Being able to do that was the universal nerd secret handshake and high sign at the time. If you were in the club, you practiced making that sign until you could do it without hesitation. And if you couldn’t do it, you weren’t in the goddam club. But he was in the club. We were all in the club around those parts.
I know that this is a bunch of silly, half thought through, semi-connected statements, but it represents the rush of emotion that ran through my brain when I read today that Leonard Nimoy had passed away at age 83. He and his character were an unreasonably big part of my early life.
And I know he was more than just Mr. Spock, that he played more roles and had a wider range of interests and a life outside of all of that.
But Mr. Spock was important to us and he got that and he played the role long after many people would have tired of the whole thing because he got how important it was. And through that he will have achieved a sort of immortality. Mr. Spock lives on.
There was a methodology by which you were supposed to generate that list. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. You were not supposed to spend a lot of time with it. And, of course, I tossed that aside. Rather than a quick list of 15 special games, I ended up with my list of the 15 most influential video games in my gaming career so far.
And what do I mean by “influential?”
I mean that they opened up new idea, new genres, or new points of view for me when it came to video games.
Influential does not mean that they were my favorites, the games I played the most in a given genre, or even all that good in a few cases. So, for example, I have played a LOT more World of Warcraft than EverQuest at this point in my life, and I am not really all that keen to go back to EverQuest. But EverQuest is the more influential of the two. Without it, there would be no WoW, and without me playing it in 1999, I might not have made it to WoW.
Anyway, on to the list.
1. Star Trek (1971) – many platforms
I have covered this as the first computer video game I ever played. While incredibly simple, this game showed me the way, let me know that computers were going to be an entertainment device
2. Tank (1974) – Arcade
This was the game AFTER Pong. Not that Pong was bad. Pong was new and fresh when it came out, but I must admit that it did become a little dull after the first pass or two. And then Tank showed us that man need not entertain himself with virtual paddles alone. I wouldn’t touch Pong after a while, but Tank was always good. You just needed somebody to play with.
3. Adventure (1979) – Atari 2600
Yes, I got that Atari 2600 for Christmas way back when, but then there was a matter of what to play. It came with the Combat cartridge, which included Tank. And I also had Air-Sea Battle and a few others. But the problem was that these games were all unfulfilling unless played with two people. And then came Adventure. Not only wasn’t it the usual 27 minor variations on three two-player themes, it was specifically, unashamedly single player only. Here, loner, good luck storming the castle! And it had odd behaviors and minor flaws. I tried putting that magic bridge everywhere and ended up in some strange places. It also had a random mode, that might just set you up with an unwinnable scenario. And there was an Easter egg in it.
It was both different and a harbinger of things to come.
4. Castle Wolfenstein (1981) – Apple II
This was the first game that I saw that indicated that I really, really needed to get a computer. An Apple II specifically, because that was what Gary had. And he also had Castle Wolfenstein.
It was not an easy game. You lost. A lot. The control system left something to be desired. You really needed a joystick to play. And there were so many quirks and strange behaviors that somebody created a utility program a couple years after it came out that basically “fixed” a lot of the worst annoyances. I bought it gladly.
But this game was the prototype for many that followed. You’re in a cell and you need to escape. You need make your way through the castle, picking up guns, keys, ammunition, German uniforms, and grenades. Oh, grenades were so much fun. There were other, later games I considered for this list, but when I broke them down, I often found that Castle Wolfenstein had done it already, in its own primitive way.
5. Wizardry (1981) – Apple IIBasically, the party based dungeon crawl in computer form. Monsters, mazes, traps, treasure, combat, and death. Oh, so much death. NetHack was a potential for this list, but I realized that randomness and ASCII graphics aside, Wizardry had pretty much everything it did.
And I spent hours playing. I mapped out the whole game on graph paper, including that one level with all the squares that would turn you around. The one with the pits of insta-death. It also taught me the word “apostate.”
6. Stellar Emperor (1985) – Apple II
But it was the online, playing with other people, usually the same people, making friends and enemies and having ongoing relationships that sold the game. Again, it was primitive, even in its day, with ASCII based terminal graphics. But there was magic in the mixture.
7. Civilization (1991) – Mac/Windows
Sid Meier was already something of a star by the time Civilization came out, but this cemented things as far as I was concerned. I was considering putting Civilization II on the list rather than this. Once I got Civ II, I never went back and played the original.
But that wasn’t because the original was crap. That was because the sequel built on what was great in the original. It was purely an evolutionary move. But it was the original that hooked me, so that has to get the nod for influential.
8. Marathon (1994) – Mac
For me, this was the defining first person shooter. There was a single player campaign. There was a multiplayer deathmatch mode. There were a variety of weapons. There was a map editor and some mods and an online community that built up around it. Everything after Marathon was just an incremental improvement for me.
There have been better graphics, better rendering engines, different weapons, plenty of variety on arena options, all sorts of updates on match making and connectivity, but in the end those are just updates to what Marathon already did. To this day, I still sometimes say “I’ll gather” when creating a game or match for other people to join. That was the terminology from 1994. I wonder what Bungie has done since this?
9. TacOps (1994) – Mac/Windows
Before video games I played a lot of Avalon Hill war games. Those sorts of games made the natural transition to the computer, which was ideal for handling much of the housekeeping chores. However, in the transition, some old conventions got dragged along as well, like hexes. And I hate hexes. Yes, on a board game you need to use that hexgrid for movement. I could accept that for Tobruk set up on the kitchen table. But a computer was fully capable of handling movement without such an arbitrary overlay. A couple of games tried it, but they tended to fall into the more arcade-ish vein, which wasn’t what I wanted.
And then I picked up a copy of TacOps.
I bought it on a complete whim, picking up the very rare initial boxed version off the shelf at ComputerWare before it went completely to online sales. And it was a revelation. Hey, terrain governs movement. And cover. And visibility. That plus simultaneous movement phases rather than turn based combat meant wonderful chaos on the field. The game was good enough that the military of several countries contracted for special versions of the game to use as a training tool.
I originally had Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin on my list. That is where Battlefront.com really came into their own with the Combat Mission series. But aside from 3D graphics, TacOps had done it all already.
10. TorilMUD (1993) – various platforms
11. Diablo (1996) – Windows
I have written quite a bit about my fondness for Diablo II, while I haven’t gone back to play the original Diablo since the sequel came out. But I wouldn’t be still talking about Diablo II or comparing the merits of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile had the original not been something very, very special.
12. Total Annihilation (1997) – Windows
Total Annihilation was not the first RTS game I played. I am pretty sure I played Dune II and Warcraft before it. It is not the RTS game I have played the most. I am sure I have more hours in both StarCraft and Age of Kings. But it was the first RTS game that showed me that the genre could be about something more than a very specific winning build order. All the units, on ground, in the air, on the water, were amazing. The player maps were amazing, and player created AIs were even better. The 3D terrain and line of sight and all that was wonderful. And new units kept getting released. And you could nuke things. I still find the game amazing.
13. EverQuest (1999) – Windows
Fifteen years later and nothing has made my mouth hang open like it did on the first day I logged into Norrath. I can grouse about SOE and the decisions they have made and the state of the genre, but that day back in 1999 sunk the hook into me good and hard and it hasn’t worked itself loose since. Pretty much what this whole blog is about.
14. Pokemon Diamond (2006) – Nintendo DS
Before we got my daughter a DS lite and a copy of Pokemon Diamond, Pokemon was pretty much just a cartoon on TV and a card game somebody’s kid at work played. Sure, I knew who Pikachu was, but I had no real clue about the video game.
And then in watching my daughter play, I had to have my own DS and copy of the game. Make no mistake, despite its reputation as a kids game, Pokemon can be deep and satisfying. It tickles any number of gamer needs. My peak was in HeartGold/SoulSilver, where I finally caught them all.
While I have stopped playing, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about buying a 3DS XL and a copy of Pokemon X or Y and diving back into the game. It is that good.
15. LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (2006) – many platforms
Filling this last slot… tough to do. There are lots of potential games out there. For example, I like tower defense games, but which one sold me on the idea? But for a game that launched me into a lot of play time over a series of titles, I have to go with LEGO Star Wars II.
That is where Travelers Tales really hit their stride. The original LEGO Star Wars tried to hard to be a serious and difficult game. With this second entry, they realized the power of simply being fun and irreverent. That was the magic.
And I only have to look at the shelf of console games we have to see that LEGO games dominate as a result of this one title. They have evolved, and in some ways I think they have lost a bit of their charm by trying to do too much. We got the LEGO Movie Game for the PS3 and it didn’t have the joy of LEGO Star Wars II. Still, 8 years down the road, the influence of LEGO Star Wars II got us to try it.
Of course, putting limits like an arbitrary number on a list like this means it must ring false in some way. And what does influential really mean? I know what I said, but I can look back at that list and nitpick that, say, Castle Wolfenstein might not belong. And what about genres I missed, like tower defense? I could make the case that Defense Grid: The Awakening belongs on the list. What about games like EVE Online? Actually, I explained that one away to myself, seeing EVE as sort of the bastard child of Stellar Emperor and EverQuest or some such. And while TorilMUD is so powerful in my consciousness, would I have played it had it not been for Gemstone? Where does NBA Jams fit? And what other Apple II games did I miss? Should Ultima III be on there? Lode Runner? Karateka?
And somehow this all ties into my post about platforms and connectivity options I have had over the years.
Anyway, there is my list, and I stand firm behind it today. Tomorrow I might change my mind. You are welcome to consider this a meme and take up the challenge of figuring out your 15 most influential games.
Others who have attempted to pick their 15, each with their own history:
Not an arcade video game. I think I played Pong first.
But an actual, sit down at the terminal, computer game.
It was Star Trek.
A friend’s dad had to go into the office one weekend and brought us along to show us the game that somebody had put on the accounting computer. He left us to poke at it while he went off and did his work. A clear waste of government resources back in an age when most people didn’t really know what a video game was, outside of Pong and Tank, and where the idea of a computer game probably would not have occurred to them.
It was a very simple game. You were tasked to clear out the galaxy of hostile elements with a limited set of resources.
It was a pivotal moment in my life. We were entranced.
I am sure the fact that it was called Star Trek, and represented the Enterprise fighting Klingons helped. Star Trek was a big deal at the time, which was at least a year before Star Wars. Maybe two. It also pre-dated my Atari 2600.
We had such a good time with the game that my friend and I ended up creating a board game version of it so we could play at home. We were engrossed. It was the first in a series of games we created by piecing together the mechanics we discovered from other games. Our home version got more complex over time.
It also got us to go out with horded allowance money to buy games like Star Fleet Battles as time went on, both to play them and to see how they dealt with spaceship combat. There was even a foray in to naval miniatures rules and the like. It was a heady time.
Anyway, I bring this up because over at The Register, the have a short piece up about the history of the original Star Trek game as part of the Antique Code Show series.
Time for the monthly look into what has found its way into the inbox of the blog email account that didn’t make it into any other posts.
Surprisingly, I did not get any offers from bots to write spam injected guest posts for the site, nor requests that I send people to read interesting articles not really related in any way to the site. Instead, this was the take:
Google has a new… toy? erm… research tool up. I saw it mentioned on I, Cringley yesterday and played with it a bit last night.
It is the Google Labs – Books Ngram Viewer.
I’ll give you a moment to look up ngram.
Or I can try to explain it in a half-assed fashion
Essentially, Google has scanned in a large collection of books (something that has earned Google Books a good deal of grief) and this tool allows you to enter a word or phrase and see how often it comes up in the corpus they have scanned.
So you can chart the frequency of mention of, say, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Fortunately, Britney is trending down of late. Not that I care. Neither get mentioned much in books I read.
But you can compare things and graph them, and that has super nerd appeal.
You do have to take care with the words, names, and phrases you use. Madonna, for example, dwarfs the Britney and Christina, but the word “madonna” isn’t exclusive to the artist, so it is hard to tell how much of that is pop culture and how much religion.
And I had to come up with some topics closer to my own interests to graph.
Well, I guess that finishes off the Star Trek vs. Star Wars fight, though Star Wars seems to have peaked a while back. (About the time of Empire, if you want my opinion, but that is another topic.)
And the, a little closer to home.
Podcast, blog, website, and newsletter. Blog has definitely been taking off. Podcast gets less mention than I thought, but it does tend to be a transitory medium. Who goes back and listens to old podcasts? Besides me? Do you hear that Van Hemlock? Write more.
Of course, we can look at things that really matter.
You can see how those all fit together, right?
Virtual worlds is the clear winner, though it has dropped a bit of late.
Online games are on the rise.
Netscape and Compuserve are in decline for mentions in literature, as well they might be.
Carbon paper remains quite stable despite not being that widely used since the mass availability of the copy machine some 30 years back.
And mad cow disease is still more likely to get mentioned than any of these other than virtual worlds, though I am going to guess that there is some cross-over there between that and Second Life.
Then, of course, we can go to items of critical national importance.
Yes, the age old conflict between vampires, unicorns, werewolves and zombies.
It was a horn to fang race through most of the 20th century, with neither gaining dominance. Then around 1980, vampires take off and never look back. I’m going to credit/blame Anne Rice here. Peter S. Beagle never had a chance. Stephenie Meyer should send Anne Rice a Christmas card (or a Winter Solstice card maybe) every year thanking her for laying the groundwork of her success.
Meanwhile, zombies, which really had no standing for most of the last century, have really come into their own since 2000, passing unicorns, who have remained flat. And even werewolves, sort of the odd-man out of the monster classes (Look, are you human or wolf? pick one already.) Threaten to surpass unicorns.
Of course, I am just searching through the full English corpus. Switching to just American English looks about the same, with vampires just spiking even more drastically in the last 20 years. But looking at the British English corpus and the results just get odd.
Vampires still rule, but they had a good run there in the 1970s as well. What was going on in the UK then? It can’t just be Margret Thatcher. And what was going on around 1930 with Unicorns?
I think there might be a sample size issue.
If I switch to the Spanish corpus, well, zombies rule.
But I didn’t bother to translate my search terms into Spanish, so who knows what that really means.
Anyway, that it Google’s new toy… erm… tool.
What other vital comparisons should we be doing?
Hail, hail, fire and snow,
call the angel, we will go,
far away, for to see,
friendly angel come to me
-Rhyme from the worst episode ever
There I was in another strange solar system checking on another Federation outpost.
There had been a distress signal. Something strange was happening on the surface. There was a request to beam down to the planet.
However, when I got there, this was the mission briefing.
There are other episodes I am not fond of… in fact, it can be a bit painful to go back and watch a lot of those old episodes… did TV get more sophisticated over the last 40 years?
Anyway, there is only one episode I actually call out for special negative attention, and that is the one. A bad script, badly acted, with an annoying lawyer dressed up as a grotesque green-ish blancmange.
And so it was with some chagrin that I read this briefing which I immediately recognized as a nod to that very episode.
This put me in the mood to blow something up. Any Gorgon, kid waving their fist, or over-weight lawyer I ran across was looking to get a grenade tossed their way just for openers. And if you read that last line in the briefing, I seemed to have carte blanche to zero-out anybody who even looked at me cross-eyed. The away team was ready.
The first step on the mission was to get some more readings on these Gorgons, which meant running around the local area looking for that Star Trek Online “mission objective here” shiny effect. We were going to find out what made them tick, all the better to put the hurt on them, or so I hoped.
Upon getting the last reading, the mission update came up.
Who? What? That was it?
You mean I don’t get to shoot the bloated, scarred visage of a Gorgon or any snot-nosed pre-teens?
After that I had to head over to Starbase 24 where one is guaranteed the option of blowing things up.